More than 80 million people have prediabetes, a major risk factor for diabetes. People with prediabetes can take steps to prevent getting diabetes. However, 90% of people with prediabetes don’t even know they have it.
The first step is to see your provider and find out if you have prediabetes or other diabetes risk factors. If you do, don’t panic. You have the power to prevent this disease. Board-certified endocrinologist Asra Kermani, M.D., FACP, covers the many things you can do — starting today — to prevent diabetes and support your health.
A little weight loss, a lot of benefit
You may know that losing excess weight could lower your risk of getting diabetes. But you might not know that even a small amount of weight loss can pay off big time.
“A large national study found that losing just 7% of your body weight is enough to prevent diabetes in most people who have prediabetes,” Kermani said. That’s about 14 pounds for a 200-pound person.
“You also need to exercise 150 minutes per week. If you lose weight and exercise, you cut your risk of getting diabetes by up to 71%.”
Skip the extreme diets
Avoid fad diets that promise fast, easy results. “Extreme diets can hurt your body because they cause a yo-yo effect,” Kermani explained. “Strict diets are hard to maintain. You may lose weight at first then regain it later. Many times, you’ll regain even more weight than you lost once you go off the diet.”
Instead, your diabetes prevention diet should include healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. Not sure where to start? Ask your provider to refer you to a prediabetes education program. These programs have trained, certified educators and registered dietitians who can customize a diet plan for you.
“Many people hesitate to do prediabetes education because they’re embarrassed or worry that they’ll be judged,” Kermani said. “But the experts at these programs are compassionate and want to help you. The nutrition advice they offer is so much better than what you’ll get from an internet search. A prediabetes education program can really improve your health.”
Eat more whole grains
Eating whole grains in place of processed or white bread, pasta and rice can help prevent diabetes. This diet change can help you lose weight, too.
“Whole grains are high in nutrients but low in calories, making them a good choice for weight loss and diabetes prevention,” Kermani said. “The fiber in whole grains helps you feel full and reduces hunger. Whole grains also don’t cause the blood sugar spikes that processed, white grains do.”
Go heart healthy
Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for people in the U.S., including people with diabetes. You can greatly lower your risk of heart disease with the right diet changes. Kermani said a heart-healthy diet is necessary, whether you have diabetes risk factors or not.
“Many people assume they can just reduce sugar to prevent diabetes and stay healthy,” Kermani said. “But reducing sugar is only one part of achieving heart health. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Limit processed meats, sodium and foods high in saturated or trans fats.”
Exercise is essential
It might seem easier to make diet changes without exercise, but Kermani warned against this approach.
“If you lose weight with diet alone and skip exercise, you’re losing both fat and muscle,” Kermani explained. “You need muscle for physical fitness and strength. But muscle mass also helps stave off diabetes. The more muscle mass you have, the better your body can manage blood sugar.”
Keep exercise simple and doable
You don’t have to hit the gym every day or even push yourself to exhaustion. Moderate activity, like walking, is enough to prevent diabetes. “You don’t have to be out of breath or uncomfortable to get the benefits of exercise,” Kermani said.
And if you haven’t exercised in a while, that’s OK. Start with a few minutes a day and work your way up. “Talk with your primary care doctor about exercise that’s safe for you,” Kermani added. “Do your activity for a few minutes a day. I don’t expect people to go from zero to 150 minutes a week of exercise right away. Start slowly.”
Stop smoking or don’t start
People who smoke are 30% to 40% more likely to get Type 2 diabetes. Smoking is especially dangerous for people who have diabetes risk factors because it:
- Affects heart health: If your blood sugar is higher than normal, you have a higher risk of heart disease. Smoking damages your heart health even more, leading to a greater chance of heart attack and stroke.
- Affects insulin: Your body needs a hormone called insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check. Smoking harms your body’s ability to respond to insulin, resulting in unhealthy blood sugar levels.
Quit smoking now to help prevent diabetes, heart disease and other health conditions. Ask your primary care provider if you need help quitting.
Limit or avoid alcohol
Proper insulin levels are essential to preventing diabetes. And chronic alcohol use harms the organ that makes insulin: the pancreas.
“Pancreas damage from chronic drinking is a major concern with diabetes,” Kermani said. “When the pancreas is damaged, you lose the cells that make insulin. This raises the risk of getting diabetes and makes it hard to control blood sugar levels once you have the disease.”
If you choose to drink alcohol, stick to a moderate amount — one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, according to the health.gov website.
Be open with your provider
See your provider regularly to talk about your risk factors for diabetes. Don’t be afraid to tell your provider about all your health habits and history. When they have all your health information, they’re better equipped to help you get and stay healthy.
“Many people don’t realize there’s so much they can do to prevent diabetes,” Kermani said. “If you have prediabetes or other risk factors, you still have time to prevent this disease.”
Contact your provider today to get started on your diabetes prevention plan. If you don’t have a healthcare provider, you can search for doctors by specialty, location and insurances they accept.